Note: The following appears in the Louisville gameday football program
Justin Falcinelli couldn’t help but crack a smile at Monday media availability after the Georgia Tech game when asked what his favorite memory as a Tiger was. He had played 41 snaps on the offensive line against the Yellow Jackets, helping the Clemson offense eclipse 200 rushing yards for yet another time in 2018.
“Seeing Dexter (Lawrence) every day,” said Falcinelli, calling out the defensive tackle as he tiptoed behind the reporter talking to the center.
A joke, obviously, well, maybe only partially, but it speaks to the kind of personality Falcinelli has.
“I’m going to find the fun in whatever I’m doing. Whether it’s the hottest, longest day of camp or even if we’re doing well, I want to have fun and laugh. I want to make it a positive experience, even if it’s the worst day ever. I’m always trying to look on the bright side and trying to keep everyone going.”
It is a quality he picked up from Jay Guillermo, a Clemson center from 2013-16. As the guy serving as the backup center for the latter two of those years, Falcinelli could have easily had a dysfunctional relationship with Guillermo, but it was precisely the opposite experience for the duo.
“So many of my favorite memories are with Jay Guillermo. He was a one-of-a-kind guy as a leader, football player and person. He would always bring me along and try to teach me, and he was also the funniest person I’ve ever met.
“Before games, he’d always have a little comedy routine on the bus. It could be a terrible day of camp where we’re all hot and exhausted, but he’d have us all dying laughing. All the moments like that over the last few years are some of my favorites.”
Falcinelli understood his role as a backup for the first few years of his career, especially as a guy who did not start playing center until he arrived at Clemson. He had no idea what was going on at first, but with some tough love from offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, he developed “to the point where you can coach yourself.”
“As a center, I don’t want to say you’re captain of the ship…you’re a part of the rudder, maybe. The quarterback is the captain, but I’ll try to help steer. It’s a lot of knowledge of what’s going to happen, what should happen and getting everyone directed in the same way. After that, it’s the same as every other offensive line position…go hit the guy…but I have to do a little thinking first.”
And think he has, as well as grow into his position since the departure of Guillermo. Falcinelli was the starter at center during the entire 2017 season and entered 2018 with 29 knockdowns in 1,229 snaps over 38 games (14 starts). He was a member of the 2018 preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, presented annually to the best center in college football, and earned preseason first-team All-ACC honors according to Street & Smith’s.
But as much as Falcinelli has emerged as a force on the gridiron, he has also made strides off it. He graduated in August 2017 with a degree in management and is currently taking the final two classes he needs to complete the MBA program, both of which interfere with part of the team’s practice blocks. However, the coaching staff has been understanding and supportive of his off-the-field endeavors, a phenomenon he thinks he wouldn’t have necessarily had anywhere other than Clemson.
“The most growth I’ve had has been off the field. When I came in, I was still quiet and shy. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. But I’ve seen huge growth, academically and professionally.
“Overall, it’s been such a good experience. The people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had through football, school and otherwise…being able to get my master’s degree and being a part of this networking community has been huge for the rest of my life.”
And it almost did not happen, as Falcinelli and Clemson were not on each other’s radars until relatively late in the recruiting process.
“I originally knew nothing about Clemson. If you had asked me where Clemson was even as late as my sophomore year of high school, I would’ve had no idea. But my coach started telling me about coach (Dabo) Swinney and how great of a guy he was, and how this program is growing.
“It’s one of those things where it just fits. They were one of the only schools to talk about academics and life outside of football as a focus, so I knew they were about the right things, and it wasn’t just going to be football, football, football. You’re not just another cog in the wheel, because they’re actually going to invest in you.”
Thanks to that investment, Falcinelli has set a high standard of performance on and off the field, and that is the legacy he wants to leave behind.
“I want to be remembered as the guy who was able to get both things done…a guy who did well academically and on the field. I want to show that you can do both and excel in both…and can have a little bit of fun while doing it.”